The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
November 14, 2021
Everything was going great. It was exactly fifteen years ago. I was on track to graduate from the University of Texas a semester early. I was dating this girl, and I was getting ready to propose to her. It seemed that the bishop was going to let me attend seminary. Everything was going great.
And it was just about now, it was right around Thanksgiving that I had to get a physical exam as part of my application for seminary. Now, my body had been acting weird but I didn’t think much of it. I was 21 years old, I was invincible. Sure, I had some strange stomach aches and I couldn’t sleep, but I chalked that up to nerves with all that was going on. So the doctor did my physical exam, took my blood, did his thing, and I walked out of there thinking that I was healthy as could be and one step closer to seminary. One step closer to the life I had been dreaming of.
But then came the phone call. Like a bolt from the blue, the doctor told me that my blood sugar numbers were through the roof. They had already called a specialist for me. The diagnosis – juvenile diabetes, Type 1. An irreversible autoimmune disease. [I knew what this meant – a lifetime of careful tracking, eating, exercise. Higher risk for heart attacks and strokes; potential loss of limbs from lack of circulation; nerve damage to my eyes and eventual blindness.] From that phone call, I knew that I would never be healthy, but always sick. And in that moment, the whole world that I had so carefully built came crashing down around me. What would this mean? Would my girlfriend dump me? Would seminary accept me? Could I really learn how to eat, exercise, how to live differently? Could I prick my fingers to check my blood? Could I give myself shots everyday?
Everything was going great. Coming out of the great Temple in Jerusalem, the disciples marvel to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. The disciples were fishermen and laborers; they were craftsmen and tax men. The Temple, with its massive stone walls and gold and ornaments, must have appeared unmovable, unshakable. As steady as and as sturdy as God himself. You can almost hear the disciples say, “Look, Jesus, everything is going great.”
But Jesus pulls them outside, like that private phone call between a doctor and a patient. And like a bolt from the blue, in the shadow of the great Temple, the world the disciples had so carefully constructed comes tumbling down. Jesus warns them that there will be wars, and rumors of wars, and plagues and famines and earthquakes. Sure, everything is great right now, but get yourself ready for what is to come. They will take you, they will beat you, they will betray you, and some of you will be put to death. Don’t put too much trust in these massive stones, Jesus says, for even they will be torn down.
We often read this passage as if it’s a warning to them that Jesus will return soon. That in just a few years Jesus would return to rescue the disciples from all that horror and take them all to heaven. But that’s not how I read it. Jesus is getting them ready for what they are about to encounter in this life. He’s getting them ready to follow him in an unsteady, uncertain, and confusing world. And what Jesus said came true. The world does come crashing down around the ancient Jews. Massive unrest breaks out across the Roman Empire. There are civil wars. Plagues break out. Rome has four emperors in one year. And eventually, less than forty years after Jesus said this, the Romans come marching in to Jerusalem and they tear the whole thing down. The Temple, with its massive stones and precious artwork is desecrated and destroyed. Wars, rumors of wars, nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom.
So the question is not if our world comes crashing down, but only when. Jesus warned us, from the very beginning, that this is how it would be when we follow him. And I know, I know, we’re doing baptisms today. The sermon should be happy and about babies and all that. All these guests are here, and I’m talking about death and disaster and really terrible things.
But I must speak the truth. These two boys being baptized today are not being baptized into a perfect world. We know that. What is more, baptism won’t protect them from all the agony and despair of this world. Eventually, at some point in their lives, they will come face to face with worry, and doubt, and some heart-wrenching catastrophe. Baptism will not protect them from that. Their worlds will come crashing down.
Our hope then, is not to protect them from the world, to isolate them, but rather to help them grow into the full stature of Christ so that, when things do get bad, they have the faith to endure. That is the solemn promise made by parents, by godparents, and by the whole congregation into which these children are baptized. We will not shelter them from the world, but we will teach them to be resilient to the whims of the world. We will not shield them, we will inspire them by the Holy Spirit to live lives of courage and faith. So that when the Romans do march in, when they are betrayed and hurt, they have what it takes to make it through.
This is a message for all of us who have been baptized in the death of Jesus Christ. We must not presume that being Christian will magically protect us from woe, anguish, and trauma. Rather, our faith as Christians will help us navigate through the woe, anguish, and trauma that accumulates over the course of our lives. So when nation rises against nation, when there are famines, and plagues, and earthquakes; when we are betrayed by our friends and hated by our enemies; when we are diagnosed with terrible diseases and suffer in our bodies; we should not be surprised. This is our lot.
This has been severely tested over the last eighteen months. I see it in you, and I feel it in me. We are tired, and weary, and exhausted. And you’ve seen it, right? You’ve seen the hollow look in peoples’ eyes. You’ve seen folks struggling to just get out of bed and walk out the door. Maybe you’ve felt that in yourself. I do not think these are crises of faith. Rather I think it’s part of life. We are buried under the rubble of the worlds we had so carefully built that have come crashing down. I’m not saying that Jesus will make it all better, or that because we’re baptized we shouldn’t worry about those things. Rather, I’m saying that by virtue of our baptism we are given the tools we need to start the rebuilding process. And for goodness’ sake, rebuild better this time. Rebuild your life around your faith, rebuild your life around Jesus. Quit thinking that this Christian faith will shelter you, quit building things that will come crashing down on you. Do we really have to learn the lesson all over again – that when we build our lives around our petty little successes they will fail us anyway?
I’m not here to tell you what a great Christian I am, and how my life turned out okay even after that terrible diagnosis, simply because I had faith. Rather, I believe that God had faith in me. And I believe that my friends, my Christian community, loved me. They helped me rebuild my life. They were the ones who supported me, who got me through. And that is what I expect of you who are here today to support these two boys who are being baptized, and of all of us who are reaffirming our baptismal vows. We will support and love and encourage one another; knowing full well that each of us has gone through some heartache and pain. By virtue of our baptism, inspired by the Holy Spirit, we can have some empathy for each other. And love each other, and help one another through those difficult times that are bound to come.
We do this because it’s what Jesus has done for us. Picking up the cross, Jesus has taken up our sins and broken dreams and broken hearts. And offered them up to God. We have been baptized with that blood of compassion. Turning now to these young boys, and turning to each other, we will be kind to each other; supportive of one another when we suffer; gracious when we fail; and loving so that all the world may look at us and see the love of Jesus.